In 2014, violent Islamic insurgent movement Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, a town in northern Nigeria, and hidden in the vast Sambisa forest. Following a global social media campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that featured world leaders and celebrities like Michelle Obama, the Nigerian Government faced massive pressure to retrieve the girls. Facing international embarrassment, then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration sought to reclaim the narrative. And that’s where the making of HBO’s documentary “Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram” began its long journey.
To date, more than 100 of the girls have been freed, while others escaped. The kidnapped girls, known as “The Chibok Girls,” are required to live in a secret government safe house in the capitol of Abuja, where contact with the outside world is severely limited. Granted exclusive access to 82 of the girls who are being rehabilitated and educated, “Stolen Daughters” chronicles how the young women are adapting to life after their traumatic imprisonment, as they reunite with family members, and how the Nigerian government is handling their reentry into society.
“I came to the story like everyone else: the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in 2014,” said documentary producer Karen Edwards. “Soon after that, a source who was linked to the president of Nigeria asked if I’d like to cover the story, because, at that time, the government was hatching a plan to try and get some of the girls back. When they came to me, it was clear that they wanted to control the narrative, although I wasn’t going to do propaganda for them.”
The question at the center of much of the international outrage over the kidnapping was why the Nigerian government did not immediately rescue the girls. “It took a while for the government to actually acknowledge that this had happened,” said producer Sasha Achilli, a documentarian who has spent much of her career covering difficult stories in parts of Africa and the Middle East. “The president initially believed the story to be a conspiracy created by an opposition party in the north. It took the parents of the ‘Chibok Girls’ who, very early on, took to the streets and protested, as the news spread to the nation’s capital, to get the government’s attention.”
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which went global soon thereafter, was launched by Oby Ezekwesili, the former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division who’s now running for president of Nigeria. A week after the girls were kidnapped, Ezekwesili was part of an opening ceremony for a United Nations event in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, where she urged Nigerians to take to social media and actively participate in efforts to “bring back our girls.” With that, a hashtag was born.
Achilli arrived in Nigeria in November 2016, a few weeks after the government negotiated the release of 21 girls; this made them more interested in working with the filmmakers. She also believes that working with HBO’s Western crew helped create the possibility of meeting with the girls. “Also, by the time we actually started filming the girls, another 82 had been released,” she said. “Nigeria was run by a different administration by then, and the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, campaigned partly on a platform that said he would rescue the girls. They hadn’t rescued all of them, but they had started to, and they wanted to show this progress to the world.”
Despite gaining access, the filmmakers were still restrained in terms of how they could cover the story. “I had a meeting with the minister of women’s affairs who is briefly in our film who said that, if they let us talk to the girls, we can’t ask them for details about what happened in Sambisa forest,” said Achilli. The reason, they said, is it would force the girls to relive the trauma. The filmmakers understood this, but Achilli believes there was a secondary motive: “I think the fact that the government felt a lot of shame that it took so long to rescue the girls also was of influence. And even still today, they sustain that the girls weren’t actually harmed, which is certainly untrue. So yes, they were trying to control the narrative in that sense.”
The “Chibok Girls” officially silenced, the filmmakers were able to fill in the gaps with stories told by the “Forgotten Girls.” These are among the thousands of other Nigerian women and girls who fell prey to Boko Haram, and who managed to escape from captivity but were not part of any official rescue operation. To meet with some of them, the production went to the northeastern city of Maiduguri, which has been the site of numerous Boko Haram attacks and remains extremely volatile. There, filming under dangerous conditions, some “Forgotten Girls” shared deeply disturbing stories of their abduction and treatment at the hands of the terrorist group.
Unfortunately, their troubles didn’t end with their escape from the forest. Because Boko Haram uses women as suicide bombers, “Forgotten Girls” are often looked at with suspicion. Raped while in captivity, some escape with babies that are then labeled “Boko Haram babies.” Stigmatized, they enjoy none of the privileges afforded “The Chibok Girls.” Many live hand-to-mouth in slums and refugee camps, abandoned by the government. But, despite some initial hesitation in speaking with the filmmakers, they are determined to tell their horror stories of mental and physical assault. The Islamic militants, whose goal is to establish territory in northeast Nigeria under strict Islamic law, force the girls to be wives and bear children. Those who don’t become wives are used as sex slaves or fighters.
“The ‘Chibok Girls’ realize how lucky they are to have been rescued and are appreciative of the security, rehabilitation and education that they government is providing them,” said Edwards. However, no longer in captivity, and their stories now being broadcast, the road ahead is an uncertain one. “We are definitely still following their journey, and plan to continue to do so. After all, the fight against Boko Haram isn’t over,” Edwards said.
The film will not be screened in Nigeria, because doing so could present some risks for the girls. However, they will get to see a version of it once their safety can be ensured.
Boko Haram continues its decade-long Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced even more. In February, the terrorist group kidnapped another 110 girls from a school in Dapchi in Nigeria’s Yobe state.
Directed by Gemma Atwal, “Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram,” a co-production with BBC2 and ARTE France, premieres on HBO on October 22 at 8pm.